This post is part of my “stories” series. In this series, I share stories of how people live their lives in response to the gospel and as a demonstration of God’s love in order to teach us and to provide an example to provoke us to love and good works. (See “stories: A New Series” for more information about this series.)
This story was submitted by Sam, one of my readers. I’ve chosen this “story” as the winner of the contest that I ran during the last month (see “A Contest: Examples of Serving“).
In November I heard Dino Rizzo speak in a workshop at the National Outreach Convention in San Diego. Dino talked about ways to serve the community. He said that if he were new in a city he would buy some garbage bags and volunteer at a community event to help do cleanup. If there was no community event, he said he would just go up and down the streets in his neighborhood and pick up trash.
I told this story to our little group that is trying to learn how to serve an inner city neighborhood in our city. We decided that we should try it the following Sunday morning, the second Sunday in December, and then do it every other Sunday morning. Our first Sunday out was a cold, windy day, but we met, prayed and then picked up trash in the neighborhood for about eighty to ninety minutes.
We skipped the fourth Sunday in December, since everyone in the group was out of town or occupied with visiting relatives. However, we resumed our trash pickup last Sunday, the second Sunday of January.
We met, prayed and started picking up trash. About two minutes after I started a car pulled up near me.
(Him) “What are you doing?”
(Me) “We’re picking up trash to make the neighborhood look nice”.
(Him) “Who are you people?”
(Me, while pointing to the yellow shirts we all wore that has our group’s name printed on it) “We’re a little group of Christians just trying to help out the neighborhood.”
(Him) “What church are you with?”
(Me) “We’re just a small group that meets here in the neighborhood.”
(Him) “I mean, where’s your church? The building?”
(Me) “We meet in cafes or the park. We don’t use a church building. We try to be out around people.”
(Him) “But are you part of some church, like the Catholic church, or something like that?”
(Me) “No. We’re just followers of Jesus, and every other Sunday morning this is how we do church. We go out in the neighborhood and pick up trash.”
Suddenly I was his good friend.
(Him) “My name is xxxxxxxx. I’m on the planning commission here, and I’ve never seen anything like this. I’m church way back, but I don’t go any more. (He gave me some reasons. He doesn’t think much of “religious people”.) Now this is real religion.”
He told me about the dislike the churches in the neighborhood and the people in the neighborhood have for each other, a story that I have heard several times from the neighborhood. (Most of the churches in the area are attended by people who drive into the neighborhood. The churches and their neighbors regularly complain to the city, the police and whomever will listen about each other.)
As we continued picking up trash, people watched. When cars drove by, I looked up. Several people smiled and waved. Some people came out of their houses and thanked us, after watching us from their windows. When we reached the end of our time, and turned around to go back to our cars, picking up a few bits of trash that we had missed on the first pass, more people came out of their houses and thanked us.
Several weeks earlier I walked these same streets trying to see what I could see, and prayed for the neighborhood. No one stopped to talk to me. No one smiled and waved as they drove by. No one came out of their house to talk to me. A couple of gang members asked me for money. That was it.
Oh yes, we do not hand out tracts or invite people to church. We’re just getting to know them and they’re getting to know us. They’re trying to figure out who we are. When they’ve got that figured out, perhaps, just perhaps, they’ll invite us into the spaces of their lives. That is where we will be allowed to hear each others stories. But for now, they’re just smiling, waving, coming out of their spaces to say hello or thank you or to ask who we are and what we’re doing.
After writing this, I thought about a group that is trying to start a new church. Twice they have walked through our neighborhood, hanging invitations to the new church on people’s doors. I watched them. No one smiled and waved at them as they drove by, no one stopped to talk to them, and no one came out of their house to talk to them. After the group had passed, I did see people open their doors to get the flyers, look at them a second or two and toss them in the trash. Hmmm!